Teach Your Children (Mandarin) Well: Ian Morris Makes a Prediction

Ian Morris, the super-giant brained academic who belongs to, not one, but three academic departments at Stanford University (Classics, History, and Archeology), thinks we are fast entering the era of Far Eastern economic and political dominance and that it could be fully upon us as early as 2050:

By 1900 the British-dominated global economy had drawn in the vast resources of North America, converting the USA from a rather backward periphery into a new global core. The process continued in the 20th century, as the American-dominated global economy drew in the resources of Asia, turning first Japan, then the ‘Asian Tigers’ and eventually China and India into major players. Extrapolating from these historical patterns, we can make some predictions. If the processes of change continue across the 21st century at the same rate as in the 20th century, the economies of the East will overtake those of the West by 2100. But if the rate of change keeps accelerating – as it has done constantly since the 15th century – we can expect eastern global dominance as soon as 2050.

Teach your children (Mandarin) well.

Ian Morris’s new book is getting a lot of buzz, by the way (though I haven’t read it yet).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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25 Responses to Teach Your Children (Mandarin) Well: Ian Morris Makes a Prediction

  1. TomH says:

    As long as asians don’t protect intellectual property, they are doomed to follow the west.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Tom H:

    Surprisingly, I agree with you. If the Chinese cannot figure out how to keep individuals motivated (apart from force) they will undermine their own opportunity. No society is good or owns the future (in my view) that puts one of its Nobel laureates in prison (as China recently has done).

    Of course, no society owns the future that tortures, either. And we’ve started doing that the past decade. There’s work to be done.


  3. Paradigm says:

    Who owns the future? Whoever has the ideas. The Asian cultures care little for the individual, and ideas are rarely a collective effort. So unless they change (which I doubt they will) they are bound to be followers. Same people who encouraged people to teach their kids japanese are now into mandarin. But when someone comes up with a robot that can make jeans and sneakers the Chinese are in trouble. It’s all about ideas.

    • santitafarella says:


      I agree that the mind has to be free to become an engine for economic growth. The Chinese are figuring this out. I don’t think they’ll blow their historic moment.


  4. Colin Hutton says:

    Tom H and Paradigm – I think you are both too sanguine.

    Two quotes from my own comment (if I may) on Santi’s recent (5 November) post on Krugman Economics 101 etc. :

    “Krugman doesn’t mention China. It is the elephant in this room. And it holds a sword of Damocles in the form of around 25% of the $13,000,000,000,000 of US government debt, which the US won’t (can’t) ever repay”.


    “Visit Beijing, observe, and, to quote, Krugman, ‘be afraid, very afraid’”.


  5. Paradigm says:

    We were supposed to be afraid of the Japanese before and they blew it so my guess is that the Chinese will do the same. I might consider being a little afraid of India though since they have a less conformist culture.

    • santitafarella says:

      If the Chinese goof up their moment it will be like Kobe Bryant missing a lay up. One of the reasons I’m hopeful for an Enlightenment oriented future is that free minds just happen to make for greater economic prosperity as well. And the whole world is focused on winning the prize of economic growth and prosperity. This means the mind must be free.

      And I (personally) don’t think of global economic competition as a zero-sum game (in which, if the Chinese win, the rest lose). It’s more like adding water to a pool: all boats in it rise with more water (more economic activity). It would be an enormous tragedy for the world if China stalled economically because it could not open its society sufficiently to seize this historic moment for it. A strong China makes for a strong America, Europe, etc. No place is an island anymore. The real danger is a stalled China; a China frustrated. That’s also true of a stalled United States. It makes politics volatile, reactionary, and paranoid.


  6. Colin Hutton says:

    Paradigm –

    Ahead of my further comment, let me declare my prejudices – it avoids misunderstandings. Based on business and social contact with Chinese people, I am very well disposed towards them and their countries. (I am also, btw, well disposed to USA/Americans – which is not universally true of Australians; particularly some of those on the left).

    My take on your dismissive attitude to Japan is that it is exactly that type of attitude, over the last 50 years, which has contributed to the USA’s current economic woes. You have now (for example) spent (‘wasted’, I predict) $60b+ of taxpayer’s money rescuing your auto industry (effectively from Japanese competition). You have also, over the last 10 years, borrowed $3t from China and squandered it buying Chinese-made big-boy’s-toys from Sears – and you still have your collective heads in the sand.

    China, in terms of people and physical resources, is an order of magnitude (x10) greater than Japan. Dismiss it at your peril.

    (I disagree, btw, with you also about India. It is too bedevilled by ethnocentricity, religion, and caste).


  7. Colin Hutton says:

    Santi –

    “free minds just happen to make for greater economic prosperity as well”.

    Sounds good – but, with all due respect, what exactly does it mean?

    And, what is your evidence. Looking at the country rankings (by the IMF) for per capita GDP (see Wikipedia) provides little support for your contention (as I would be inclined to interpret it).

    I agree with the final 3 sentences of your above comment, but, for the rest, think that you, like Tom H and Paradigm, are too sanguine.


    • santitafarella says:


      Perhaps I’m under the spell of a current book. I really encourage you to check out “The Rational Optimist” (Harper 2010) by the highly respected science writer, Matt Ridley.

      As for minds and economics, I mean that they are positively correlated, not that there is a one-to-one relationship. Wherever you have free minds (or freer minds) you have a greater possibility every year that one of those minds will discover something that zooms your economy down the road (from Bill Gates tinkering in his garage as a kid to Harvard students coming up with FaceBook). Free minds are like demographics: they are not destiny but they load the dice for you. I think it more likely, for example, that the next Albert Einstein is growing up right now in the United States or India, and if he has the bad fortune of being in Iran his intellectual and emotional growth will be stunted (and if it is not, he’ll end up getting out of the country sooner or later).


  8. Paradigm says:

    Well, fact is Japan’s economy is shrinking and China is doing more or less what Japan did before them – making cheap copies. And not cars but mainly really simple stuff like jeans or toys. Following that road they too will stagnate. I don’t fear that they will overtake us, but I do fear that their troubles will have global repercussions.

    India is focusing more on IT, financial services, design and other – idea-based – products and services. They also speak english better and rely less on foreign investors. So while China is copying a copier, India is doing their own thing. And that difference will be decisive.

    • santitafarella says:


      Japan’s economy is not contracting.

      And China has the fastest processing supercomputer in the world (outstripping the power of the United States’ largest supercomputer). As we go forward, the Chinese will more than hold their own in the area of high tech.

      I would add that Asians represent a substantial presence throughout the University of California system—from San Diego to UC Irvine to Berkeley.


  9. Paradigm says:

    Ok, the shrinking has stopped and they are now growing around one percent. Not a big deal. China may have a big supercomputer but it is probably just a monument, like the Bank of China tower. I very much doubt that they will compete successfully in high tech. The fact that they are in universities in the USA is not a sign of creativity. Most people with degrees are not creative at all. And what little these people have to offer will benefit America since that’s where the elite in this field is located.

    • Colin Hutton says:


      Ian Morris is talking 2050. By then I will long since have been worm food. So one of us will not have the opportunity of saying “I told you so” to the other.

      But I have a not totally unrealistic hope of seeing the first humans arrive on Mars before the worm food thing, and I think it is quite possible those humans will be Chinese. How about a nominal wager to keep things interesting. My US$10 says they’ll be Chinese, not American. You on?


  10. Colin Hutton says:

    Santi –

    Thanks for explanatory response – in conjunction with the post on “mind wells”, which I like. The Matt Ridley talk is very thought provoking. A couple of things quite startled me, so I will be chasing down ‘The Rational Optimist’.

    I remain a bit bothered/unpersuaded by the degree of correlation you find between free minds and economic outcomes, given all of the other relevant influences (culture, economic system, natural resources, size of the country/economic unit, etc.). A couple of the things Ridley said seem to have a bearing on the issue. Globalisation, perhaps, but I’m going to have to think about it some more.


    • santitafarella says:

      One country that bolsters the minds/economy idea is Japan. Japan is not a resource rich country, but rich nonetheless.

      I like Ridley’s argument—which is also Adam Smith’s—that prosperity is really about figuring out ways to increase per capita worker productivity. In other words, figuring out how to get workers to move about in ways that are smarter, not harder. If you spend an hour at a task, how much does it earn you (and your country) compared to the year previous? It takes brains and innovation to give you a positive answer to that question.


  11. Paradigm says:

    No bet since going to the moon is a monument which isn’t a meassure of economic growth. It’s a huge nation so they can probably pull it off, but most likely using other nations technology and ideas.

    But don’t give up. I have feeling the Chinese will level out sooner than you think, perhaps even the next ten years. So you might well be around when I tell you “I told you so” : )

  12. Paradigm says:

    I did not say the Japanese don’t have brains. But they lack in ideas and creativity. They didn’t invent those cars, computers or cellphones. They just copied them. Doesn’t really matter how effeciently they do it, they are still followers which puts a limit to their economical growth potential. As the know-how of existing technology spreads to poorer countries like China and Burma they will find it increasingly harder to compete. Only by coming up with something of their own will they be able to grow in a longer perspective.

    • santitafarella says:

      Okay, I see what you mean. I suppose you can be a creator of clever ideas, tools, or rules (for doing things efficiently), or you can be a copier. A country built around entrepreneurship and good free rules (like the U.S. with its cultural bias toward capitalism and its ongoing affirmation of its Constitution and Bill of Rights) makes those creators far, far more likely to come forward. So I guess the big question is whether the Chinese will start trying to copy and set into place ever more predictable rules for the exercise of freedom—a Bill of Rights, independent courts, etc. I bet that they will (over the next century). It’s one reason why I’m optimistic about the Enlightenment future. People want to be free and want to live well. The pressure on governments, the Great Pharoahs of the world, to let their people go, will never relent. The cat left the bag in the 18th century (thanks to the French and American revolutions). Forever more, if the world’s Pharoahs don’t let their people go, their borders will be plagued with frogs.


  13. Paradigm says:

    Colin: It’s on : )

  14. Paradigm says:

    I think you are confusing cause and effect here. Japan is after all a much freer country than China but shows little sign of individualism. Many of them readily admit that this is a problem. It was freedom-seeking people who built America; the laws and institutions merely reflect their spirit. That spirit is either a product of genes or culture, or both. At any rate it created what you (with disgust) would call a herderian “volksgeist”.

    This volksgeist is unique to America and, to a smaller degree, Europe. The idea that it will somehow spread globally is clearly wrong. Among Muslims for instance there is a strong opposition to it, manifesting itself in everything from domestic violence to terrorism. China has a different, less violent, culture but is at the same time very much unlike the American. They are just as influenced by the American culture as India is, and yet unlike India they do not display any individualism. There is no rational reason for that unless there is some other factor influencing their behavior. My guess is that this factor is the volksgeist.

    • santitafarella says:

      I don’t buy the idea that Japanese people, and Chinese people, and people from India, are any less aware of their individual and inner selves and lives than you or I are. The cultures that they are embedded in may not always reward or encourage their inner selves and their self expressions in the same way that Western culture does, but I think (for example) that America in the 1950s was almost certainly less individualistic than Japan is today. Human nature is, in my view, universal. And economically inefficient structures pitted against individualism are coming down in the 21st century. We need not be opaque to one another at all. The individualism that you and I value is what all people, given the right circumstances, will jump to. Why wouldn’t they? I was just talking to a cousin who lives in Seattle and is an executive in a company there, and she tells me that Microsoft heavily employs people from India. Apparently they fit right into the entrepreneurial culture of the company. And again I would ask, why wouldn’t they?


  15. Paradigm says:

    No, America in the 1950s was probably fairly conformistic by todays standards. But what you should compare with is Japan in the 1950s. And an even better comparison is of course between the two countries at present time since we are now less isolated than ever.

    Culture and structures are no ultimate causes of human behavior. We know this from the creation of America. They fled oppression and made freedom the central principle
    on which the new country was built. In doing so they opposed the existing culture and structures and created their own. The people, their volksgeist, came first and culture and structure later, as an expression of their ideals.

    What were the Japanese doing back then, and what have they been doing in the centuries that has past since then? You say it will happen within a few decades. I say people who think like you have been saying similar things since the 1700s. If it could happen it already would have. And where did their conformistic culture come from? I can’t have dropped down from the sky. My guess is that it is just as much an expression of their volksgeist as American culture is to Americans.

    “I was just talking to a cousin who lives in Seattle and is an executive in a company there, and she tells me that Microsoft heavily employs people from India. Apparently they fit right into the entrepreneurial culture of the company. And again I would ask, why wouldn’t they?”

    Yes, but that is just my point. Remember I said (about the Chinese): “They are just as influenced by the American culture as India is, and yet unlike India they do not display any individualism.”

    Another example to ponder. Sweden and Denmark are neighboring countries in northern Europe. We have the same religion and almost the same language more or less the same kind of politics (both members in EU) and basic laws and standard of living. And yet Danes consistently behave different from Swedes. In 1658 Sweden took the northern part of Denmark, called Skåne, and it has been part of Sweden ever since. And yet to this day, the people of Skåne behave more like Danes than Swedes.

    It kind of sounds impossible if indeed human nature is universal. But ask anyone, I’m not making this up.

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